Copyright is held by the author.
Lizzie felt it even before her bat made contact. This was the hit she’d been waiting for. The yellow softball flew high into the summer sky, soaring past third base and evading all attempts by the outfielders to rein it in. She took off like a shot rounding first base with the new two-point turn technique her coach drilled into her all season long. Second, third . . . the left fielder finally scooped it up and chucked it hard, right into the third baseman’s well-worn glove. This was it, the moment of truth. All those hours spent working on her stride and here she was.
Lizzie had always been tall-towering over her teammates and really, every other 12 year old she knew. This affected her speed and efficiency, now was her big chance to see if it would pay off. She smiled to herself as she exploded off of third down into the home stretch. She could hear her parents cheering wildly (Go! Go! Go!) and mentally prepped herself for the supremely satisfying sensation of the perfect slide. Down she went in an explosion of dirt and dust as she heard the ball land firmly into the catcher’s mitt (please, please don’t let her tag me!)
She made a mental click and entered what she called “The Zone,” a place in her mind where time stood still. As if in slow motion, she gave herself up completely to the slide. The seconds passed like hours as she felt her foot firmly make contact with home plate. The crowd was instantly silent, everyone holding their collective breath as the ref bent down and the dust cloud settled . . . “SAFE!”
An explosion of sound erupted, teammates running at her from every direction. This was the winning run of the game–they’d finally done it! She heard her father’s raucous cheering (always the loudest at every game, much to her embarrassment) and her mother jumping up and down, banging on the chain link fence. The families of her teammates were all high-fiving while she watched the crestfallen faces of the opposing team as they lined up for their end of game ritual: “good game, good game, good game.” Lizzie had been on both sides of the equation enough times to understand their disappointment. Coach said the way they handled losing was just as important as the wins and as she shook each hand, she really meant it.
Something about the crowd caught her attention and she looked up to the far set of bleachers. A tall, thin man, possibly the tallest person she’d ever seen, was clapping with wild abandon. He was wearing some kind of suit and hat that made her think of the old-time movies her mom was always watching. It clashed with the shorts and t-shirts all around him, setting him apart. He stood off on his own, up on the highest level of the rickety old bleachers, making him appear even taller than he already was. Some sort of enormous grinning giant. Just the sight of him made Lizzie smile, but when she turned back to get another look, he was gone, as if into thin air.
Chub smiled fondly at the memory. The smell of fresh grass and cigars wafting through the air, beer and peanuts, ah what he would give for an ice-cold beer! He and his brother-in-law Frank tossing ’em back as they’d yell at the opposing team.
“Steee-rike 3 — sit down!”
OK, so maybe that wasn’t such a great idea, looking back on it. There were too many times when they’d gotten into a scrape or two, even once when the batter tried to jump into the stands to clobber him. Man was that was fun!
Baseball was his life, especially his beloved Chicago Cubs. He’d been dead for well over forty-five years, waiting year after year, on and on into eternity until the Cubbies finally decided to win a World Series. In extra innings and a rain storm to boot. Over one-hundred years it took, but the so-called Curse of the Goat was finally vanquished–hallelujah!
Strike. Damn! She shouldn’t have swung at that one, his attention was suddenly yanked back into the present. Ball. Ah, that’s better Lizzie. The pitcher wound up once more and got ready to release. He saw that she tossed ’em high and knew that his great-granddaughter never met a low pitch she didn’t like. The ball flew way over her head and hit the fence behind the catcher. OK, focus girl. This pitcher’s all over the place. Shunk! Ball three slammed into the catcher’s mitt just outside the strike zone. Lizzie backed out of the box, looking to her coach before taking a practice swing.
Chub flashed back to a sweltering hot day, sweat streaming into his eyes as his long legs straddled the mound. His fingers tingled in sweet anticipation as he twisted the ball over and over in his left hand. He was well in The Zone, shutting out everything but the sight of the target–his catcher’s glove. He rocked back, extending his arm in a well-loved ritual. He was locked and loaded, firing it off with every bit of energy he had. The ball shot forward, it’s seams blazing in a perfect rising fastball. It rocketed towards the batter then…
Lizzie smacked the ball, sending it foul straight up into the air and behind the plate. Whew! That was close, the catcher almost got it that time. A’tta girl you got a piece of it, the next one’s yours.
Once again, he was back on the mound, adrenaline coursing through his body. He heard the crack of the bat and watched as the ball headed straight for him. Instinctively he reached up, his glove held high and caught it in one smooth, practiced arc. The batter scowled at him in disbelief then . . .
The crowd went wild as his great-granddaughter slid into home plate just out of the catcher’s reach. He leaped to his feet (well, as much as a ghost can leap) and waved his old Fedora hat high in the air. Filled with elation, he watched as her team surrounded her and wished, once again, that he could be a part of it. Suddenly she looked up and locked eyes with him. Her eyes are hazel, just like mine! She gave him a smile and he felt his breath catch in his throat in pure astonishment. Can she actually see me? Instantly he took flight, leaving the nearby rustling of a tree branch as the only proof of his swift departure.
She scrunched up her nose in concentration and started the windup for her fastball. It flew low and hit her father squarely in the ankle, causing him to react with a word she pretended not to hear. “Sorry Dad!’ he smiled and waved her off, rubbing his ankle frantically.
Disappointment flowed through her, a tired and sad feeling. Lizzie was a doer. One of those busy people that always had a million things going on and tried to do them all well. In addition to all of her activities and getting good grades, she was a solid utility player, playing catcher, outfielder, third and a crack first baseman. The truth be known, she loved all the positions and happily went wherever she was told. Lizzie couldn’t put it into words, but the game was in her blood, part of who she was.
From T-ball at five years old to being the only girl on a series of baseball teams, she eventually moved into competitive girls’ softball and found her true home. Why then, was she having such a slump? She was a back-up pitcher on her team but knew she still needed to prove herself with that one breakout game.
Lizzie sighed and rubbed her sore arm — they’d been out here for well over an hour. She heard her brother’s laughter, running through the park with all the reckless abandon of a carefree eight-year old. Dad wanted her to try again, she could sense his impatience. Her older sister looked up from her sketch pad with annoyance.
“C’mon Lizard, it’s getting late — let’s go!”
Lizzie felt hot tears of frustration forming as Dad started packing up the gear. She felt a sudden warm breeze pass by, drying her tears and gently lifting the back of her hair. A brief moment of comfort washed over her as she scooped up her glove and slowly walked back to the car.
“Bobby, come on. Let’s try it just one more time.”
Chub pleaded with his 10-year-old son, trying in vain to hold his interest. He was crouched down, his considerable length bent in half, holding out his glove with increasing impatience. Bobby tried, failed, then tried again to get the ball anywhere near his father’s outstretched glove. He grunted in anger, throwing the glove down and running off before Chub could even stand up. Not that he could catch him, he was not nearly as fast as he used to be.
He saw himself, even younger than Bobby was now, his mother yelling at him to put the glove down and come in for dinner. “Not yet ma!” he yelled as the neighbourhood kids scattered. Then, there he was at eighteen, fully grown to his freakish 6’5” height, standing in a line of hopefuls trying to make it onto his first minor league team. The all-encompassing joy when he was chosen, followed by a brief, intense jealousy when his older brother made it into the majors right out of the chute.
I had no choice, but to change my name, didn’t want to compete with him.
Robert James Kroupa became Robert James Cooper with the stroke of a pen, and he never looked back. Ah, the glory days! Hundreds of memories flew at him all at once. His first strikeout followed by the pain of his first walk. The countless wins and losses, highs and lows. The Babe coming to town as a favour to his manager and letting Chub use his bat. God, how I loved it! The game was in the very fabric of his being until . . .
He snapped out of old memories as Lizzie let go of the pitch and hit her father at full speed. His heart dropped as he saw her shoulders fall, felt her disappointment. She’s giving up. She has all that power, now she just needs confidence. How could he possibly help her? She saw him once, could it happen again?
Chub felt a familiar pang of loss, remembering the day he had to quit the team.
“I’m so sorry coach, Pa lost his job. My family needs me.”
He thought of the headlines, “Stock Market Crash!” and recalled the desperation of those long ago days. He saw a beautiful woman, (Adele) and fondly recalled his single minded pursuit of her. God, how I chased that woman to the ends of the earth and back, what a journey that was!
Her family was straight off the boat from Lithuania and he vaguely remembered getting his nickname from them. “Chub and Gug,” they called them, Bob and Adele, some foreign meaning behind the name that he couldn’t quite recall. She was a divorcee with a small child at the time, quite scandalous in those days. Chub raised her son as his own and then, Bobby came along. His only natural born child.
His great-grandson ran past him, the very image of Bobby at that age. Chub reached out to him, then pulled back.
I gave it all up but it was always with me, this love of the game. Ah, what might have been? He remembered the day when Bobby told him he would never play baseball again.
“I’m sorry Dad, it’s just not for me.”
Chub swallowed back the old bitterness. How could my own son not love the game? What failing of mine caused this? Then, he recalled with pride, Bobby joining the Marine Corps, serving bravely in Vietnam. He came home, a fine man, had a family . . .
Lizzie walked by, slumped over and Chub sprung into action. She couldn’t see him this time, but she would feel him. He poured his heart out into the summer breeze, sending her all of his love in a single long breath.
Closing her eyes, she desperately tried to summon The Zone. Coach just said that she’d be pitching today. Taking a deep breath, she pushed all worry to the back of her mind, willing the dull throb in her arm to go away. She was excited, anxious to get in there and give it a whirl. This was the third and final game of the tournament, with the winner earning the chance to move on to the Championships. She wound up and snapped it.
“Not half bad kid!”
Turning, she saw him there, casually leaning up against a tree. He had a kind face, a warm glow, almost appearing to be back-lit against the tree. Lizzie had a quick flash of recognition, knowing him from somewhere, but where? A snippet of an old show on late night TV ran through her mind, “to the moon Alice!” What was that? He looked just like the tall man, the one who played the best friend on that show.
“Art Carney from the Honeymooners,” he answered her, “yeah, I get that a lot.”
His eyes crinkled in amusement, she saw they were hazel, just like . . . Wait! Did I say that out loud?
“Now, I’m no softball pitcher, mind, but I can see you’ve got the fundamentals, Lizzie, now ya gotta put some spit and grit into it.”
He plucked the ball from her outstretched hand and threw it dead on into the net.
“Let me give you a couple of general pointers.”
Lizzie listened with rapt attention, marvelling that he seemed to know her so well. He adjusted her stance a little, showed her his “world famous lock and load technique,” all the while regaling her with stories about his past days of glory. Babe Ruth? Seriously? She could hardly believe it.
Time flew fly by and Lizzie discovered that she was sad to leave. He started to walk away then stopped, turning back to her.
“Always remember Lizzie — The Zone is in your heart as well as your head and you, kid, are all heart.”
Goosebumps broke out all over her arms, she was completely stunned by his words.
“Wait! You know about The Zone?”
Chub tipped his old hat to her in tribute.
“Know about it? Kid, I invented it.” He winked and gave her pitching arm a gentle squeeze as he headed over to his favourite bleachers.
Lizzie felt a sudden warmth spread throughout her arm, all soreness disappearing in an instant. She watched him walk away, the sound of his tuneless whistling filling the air. Lizzie smiled, a slightly puzzled expression on her face before shaking it off. She grabbed her glove and started out for the field.
She’s really holding her own. Lizzie walked a few, but was also putting out a fair amount of strikes. He felt his fingers tingling, turning an imaginary ball round and round in his hand. Out on the field, Lizzie did the exact same motion, matching him in perfect synchronicity. She wound up and he noted with satisfaction that she’s picking up the “lock and load” with great speed.
Strike, good! She really needed that one, the first two pitches were balls and this was the last inning. If they can hold ’em here, Lizzie’s team will win the game. He was on the edge of his seat, literally floating just above the bleachers. Was he ever this nervous during his own games? Now he understood why Lizzie’s mom paced back and forth while her dad crossed his arms anxiously. Ball three. Damn, that was almost there. C’mon girl, go there, get into The Zone. Crack! He looked up in time to see the ball cross the white line, clearly a foul. It’s OK-breathe Chub, breathe! He laughed at the irony, the butt of his own private joke. Chub hadn’t had to worry about breathing in a very long time. He sent out all of his energy, trying to reach out to her by sheer force of will. Here it comes, the last pitch of the game. Chub hunkered down for what felt like the longest moment of his after-life.
Lizzie saw him out of the corner of her eye, out in the distance. She felt that same warm energy envelop her again. The Zone had never been more welcoming, all traces of self-doubt evaporated in an instant. She felt a tingle in her hand and began to turn the ball in a slow, deliberate motion. They were playing hard today, she had no doubt that not a single pair of pants would come out unscathed in the end, grass and dirt covering every inch. Lizzie had never felt more connected to them, so proud to be a part of this team.
An electric hum surrounding her, adrenaline coursed through her veins as she locked, loaded and fired it off. Crack! The batter hit it hard and took off, kicking up a big cloud of dirt in her wake. Lizzie watched as the ball sailed by her and landed right behind the waiting glove of the second baseman. The runner went full throttle as the second baseman scooped it up and fired it off to first, all of them praying it got there in time. She looked up for a split second, searching for him, found him hovering (floating? What?) over the bleachers in an attempt to get a better view then . . . Out!
The crowd erupted as the field turned into a hive of frenzied activity. They all rushed together in pure glee, the entire team becoming one. She found her parents in the crowd hugging, jumping up and down with pride. Even her sister and little brother were celebrating — a true miracle, indeed. Her coach slapped her on the back, picking her up in a great bear hug. She turned to find him one last time, wanting to share this moment with him, possibly the greatest moment of her softball life. The top bleacher was empty, just as she suspected it might be, but it really didn’t matter.
Lizzie was not sure of a lot of things but she knew one thing with absolute certainty. He would always be there watching over her, her guardian angel, for they were connected by one thing that can never be broken. Love of the game.
Chub had often heard the phrase “bursting with pride” but until now, he always thought it was just an expression. He literally felt his energy coming apart at the seams as the first baseman caught that ball. He rocketed up into the air in his joy, a burst of pure light, before landing back down on what he fondly thought of as his bleacher.
He looked over at Lizzie’s parents, her mother — Bobby’s only child — as celestial tears clouded his vision. His family, his and Adele’s. It was all worth it and he wouldn’t change a damned thing. He watched as Lizzie’s coach picked her up and lead her around the field. She’s going to be just fine. My Lizzie.
He took one last look before taking his leave. After all, he had to come back for the Championships and in the meantime, he had just enough time to make it to his weekly heavenly poker game.
A sudden burst of air quickly subsided as a battered old Fedora gently floated down and landed on the top step of the bleachers.